September 2, 1999
By Andrew Cawthorne
HAVANA, Sept. 2 (Reuters) - Had army officer Jesus Yanez Pelletier followed orders on Aug. 1, 1953, modern Cuban history would have taken a radically different turn.
As a former medical student, Yanez was chosen to poison the food of a notorious prisoner captured days earlier after his failed attack on a military barracks in eastern Cuba. Yanez disobeyed and the prisoner, a dashing young rebel called Fidel Castro, lived to fight another day.
When the Jan. 1, 1959, Cuban Revolution swept Castro to power, Yanez become his aide-de-camp, but -- in one of the historical ironies that abound here -- he later became an avowed opponent of the man whose life he protected in jail.
In and out of detention centres over the years, Yanez now blames Castro for four decades of ``dictatorship'' and ``tyranny'' in Cuba but has no regrets about defying superiors in 1953: ``They told me to kill him ... but I acted on principles my parents taught me, I am not ashamed of that.''
Nearly half a century after that incident, the octogenarian Yanez, still acting on principle, he says, remains active in an internal dissident movement he helped to found but which looks as far as ever from dislodging Castro from power.
Although the dissidents themselves are upbeat, most neutral analysts (not easy to find when it comes to Cuba) view the opposition as small, divided, well-controlled by state security and no threat to Castro or his Communist Party.
``If any change is going to come in Cuba it won't be from them,'' said a Western diplomat who follows dissidence closely.
The government, meanwhile, keeps a firm check on opposition activity, which it classes as ``counterrevolutionary'' crime. It refuses to accept the word ``dissident,'' saying those masquerading as peaceful dissenters lack popular support and are puppets of hostile U.S. policy -- and funding -- aimed at undermining Castro's power base from within.
Although scores of illegal anti-government groups exist, most have few members and the number of open, active dissidents seems a tiny percentage of the 11 million islanders. Activists generally belong to one of three areas -- human rights groups, self-styled ``independent'' journalists working outside state media, and overt opposition groups.
``In Cuba you see the Spanish progeny -- when there is one Cuban you have a Quixote, when there are two you have a dispute, and when there are three you have a political party,'' joked one dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
But he said activist numbers had ``multiplied'' since the 1980s when there were only 10 open, active dissidents. ``Now there are thousands of opposition militants in Cuba, throughout the nation, integrated mainly in small groups, what (Czech leader and former dissident) Vaclav Havel called 'significant minorities,''' Sanchez said at his Havana home.
He acknowledged, however, that ``we are not a danger for the government'' due, he said, to successful repressive machinery.
Yanez said the opposition was stronger than ever because Cubans had lost the fear of protesting since Pope John Paul II's visit in 1998. Other activists also say they now speak for a large, if mainly silent, majority in favour of reforms to Castro's one-party socialist system.
Emboldened by recent opposition activity, and sensing room for manoeuvre around the upcoming Ibero-American Summit in Havana in mid-November, they claim a fledgling, nonviolent resistance movement may be taking shape.
Internal dissident activity has, however, hardly set Cuba alight in recent times -- or in the last 40 years, cynics might add. Nor has it generated much interest among ordinary Cubans, who appear either unaware it is going on or too preoccupied with the day-to-day task of earning a living.
The highest-profile recent protest was a 40-day fast by half a dozen activists in support of political prisoners. The fast, known as ``Tamarindo 34'' for the Havana house where it was held, lasted 40 days but ended with the protesters disputing among themselves.
GOVERNMENT STIFLES PROTESTS
The government left that protest alone but has easily stifled others this year by rounding up activists in advance. In the best-known incident, scores including Yanez and his wife were held in a meticulously coordinated operation across Cuba to keep them from attending the trial of the so-called ``Group of Four'' dissidents in March.
Leading the most provocative protests lately have been two relatively new figures in dissident circles: former Dr. Oscar Biscet of the Lawton Foundation rights group and lawyer Leonel Morejon of environmental group Naturpaz. They say they are trying to galvanise peaceful protests but, in a familiar show of disunity, their motives are questioned by other dissidents.
Perhaps more damaging for the Castro government this year than overt demonstrations has been the work of the roughly 40 ``independent'' journalists who file stories via telephone dictation to the United States, where support groups post their work to the Internet and send it to newspapers.
``We are the ones annoying the government most at the moment and we expect a strong reaction at any time,'' said Jose Fornaris, who writes for dissident news agency Cuba Verdad.
Their work combines anti-Castro rhetoric and information not in official media, from food shortages to detentions and trials of activists.
The chief damage to the government of dissident activity is not inside Cuba, where few hear about it, but in Havana's international relations. The jailing of the Group of Four on a conviction of inciting sedition, for example, drew particular wrath abroad and threatened to undermine diplomatic advances Havana had made since the papal trip.
'PUPPETS OF IMPERIALISM?'
The government hit back by blaming foreign journalists in Cuba for taking the dissidents' side, lambasting the four as ``Puppets of Imperialism'' and accusing foreign nations of playing to Washington's tune by backing them.
Government officials invariably argue there is no independent opposition inside Cuba free from U.S. backing and funding. Anyway, the Communist Party structure allows dissent and argument at all levels, they add.
While dissidents estimate about 400 to 1,000 political prisoners in Cuba, officials deny there are any, saying all inmates are there for legitimate crimes in the penal code.
Communist Party daily Granma, in an editorial after the March trial, said the ``dissidents'' were in fact ``a new class of vagabonds'' without morals or ideals who ``don't wet their shirt with sweat'' but ``receive a check for the sad job of slandering the fatherland.''
Yanez was jailed for 11 years in 1960 on charges of CIA contacts and corruption and has faced a string of temporary detentions since helping found the Cuban Committee for Human Rights in the early 1980s.
Fingering a photo of himself as an aide-de-camp standing behind Castro and then Vice President Richard Nixon at a famous 1959 meeting in New York, he smiles at life's ironies: ``The first life that I protected, without knowing anything about human rights, was Fidel himself!''
Sitting in his apartment a block from Havana's seafront Malecon, Yanez doubts change will come while Castro stays in power. But he vows to continue campaigning until his last days: ``They can kill me but shut my mouth, no.''
Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited.
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